The Promise of a Thief
By Rabbi Daniel Travis
"I will be in his eyes k’metate’ah (like an impostor)." (Bereshith
As explained previously, lying is such a serious transgression that it is
compared to idol worship. Truth, on the other hand, is such a fundamental
value in Jewish thought that clinging to truth can lead one to a life of
Torah observance, as described in the following story.
An inveterate thief once approached a rav with the announcement that he
had decided to abandon his life of crime. He begged the rav to tell him
what he could do to make amends for his many acts of theft. He fully
expected the rav to instruct him to undergo a rigorous process of
The rav, however, realized that any such stringent regimen would prove too
difficult for the penitent thief, and he would not be able to maintain it
for long. He therefore told the thief that the only change he would need
to accept upon himself was an absolute dedication to truth under all
circumstances; he should never allow himself to utter even the smallest
lie. The thief gave his word that he would do as the rav had instructed
him, and with that he left the rav’s home, delighted that so little was
being demanded of him.
It was not long before the thief’s excitement over the notion of repenting
wore off, and he was seized by the urge to rob someone’s house. As he was
on his way to carry out his intention, someone inquired of him where he
was headed. Remembering the one promise he had made to the rav, he would
not lie, but neither could he bring himself to tell the truth – that he
was going to commit a theft. He therefore changed his mind about his
anticipated action, and returned home. This scene repeated itself in
various forms again and again, until finally he realized that his career
as a thief was over; never again would he attempt to steal. He was then
able to put his past behind him completely and make a fresh start1.
How did the rav know that merely telling the thief not to lie would
influence his behavior so dramatically? Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai taught
that the embarrassment caused by fear of what others will think is the
strongest motivation to stop one from transgressing2. Since people are in constant interaction with one
another, it would be nearly impossible for the penitent thief to remain
faithful to his promise to always speak the truth while maintaining a life
of crime. A steadfast dedication to the truth was therefore the most
appropriate way of keeping him from faltering while correcting his ways.
1 Sefer Chasidim 647.
2 Brachoth 28b.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org